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Rockin' at 50
For most families in the northern suburb of Westfield, New Jersey, it was a typical Saturday night. They buckled their kids into the backseats of their minivans for an evening that promised to be full of music and fun. The rest of the weekend, they knew, would hold the usual routine – soccer games, Sunday brunch and the last-minute rush to finish forgotten homework.
But inside the Cranford Dramatic Club Theatre, as the stage crew adjusted the lights and the band did one final sound-check, Betsy True, an effervescent dynamo who most of the stay-at-home moms en route to the show knew only as one of their own, was preparing to step into her future.
"At that moment," recalls Betsy, "I knew I was at the start of a new journey. And I knew I wasn't going back." For three hours that night, Betsy rocked the stage in a full-blown one-woman concert. In the first act, she perched on a stool in an elegant black ensemble, and sang the kinds of songs she used to sing when she was a professional performer – ballads and show tunes. For the second act, she strutted on stage in jeans and a sparkly tank-top, then tore down the house with non-stop rock, pop and blues. Call it Madison Square Garden Meets the Burbs – the only thing that was missing was the paparazzi, and that was clearly their loss.
Betsy True rocks the crowd at her 50th birthday concert.
Husband Daniel Bloomfield (goatee, purple shirt) mans the second keyboard in the back.
This was a night Betsy had been planning for two years – a celebration of her 50th birthday and fundraiser for an urban school with an underfunded arts program. But beneath the blaring amps and blazing lights, it was much more than that: In 1996, with the birth of her first daughter, Betsy had "willingly and joyfully" walked away from a Broadway career (one that included starring roles in Les Miserables and Gypsy) to become a full-time mom. Tonight was about recapturing the dreams she'd put on hold.
"When my first child was born, I knew I couldn't be the mom I wanted to be if I tried to juggle motherhood with the creative process that a career on the stage demands," she says knowingly. "A lot of women feel like they're better moms if they work outside the home as well – and that's great. But I wanted to soak up the whole experience. I didn't want I didn't want to look back and say 'I wish I had spent more time with my children.'"
So for the first decade of the new millennium, Betsy – who'd been performing since she was a child in Columbia, Maryland – felt comfortable, even blessed, to have stepped out from under the stage lights. "Here I have these two great kids [Anna, 14 and Emily, 11], a wonderful husband and a home that I love. But at about 47 – and I don't want to sound selfish – I started to ask myself, So you got what you wanted. Now what?
"Then when I turned 48, knowing I was two years from turning 50, I began to make a list of all the things I am and all the things I wanted to do. One of my dreams had always been to sing in a rock band."
So where does a suburban mom who hasn't set foot on a musical stage in more than a dozen years even begin? First, by recruiting the brothers she'd cast in plays in the family basement from the time they were three. Both of them had been in rock 'n' roll bands earlier in their adult lives, so she enlisted them not only to back her up, but to offer support and wisdom.
"One of the things my brother Erik told me about singing in a rock band was, 'You have to own it. Every song is about sex, and if you don't own it, nobody's going to care how great your singing might be.' This was one of my biggest hurdles," Betsy says with a hint of sadness in her voice, "mostly because of the way I had been feeling about myself. I spent most of my time in workout clothes, unshowered and always in a rush. A lot of moms don't feel sexy or hot or womanly – and that was something I really wanted to reconnect with. So I put myself on a Pilates workout schedule a full year before the concert."
As Betsy worked on getting her rock star body back, the band began shaping up as well. For more than a year, brothers Erik and John would make the occasional four-hour drive from Baltimore for weekend rehearsals, while Betsy's husband Dan Bloomfield (whom she lovingly refers to as "the Linda McCartney of the group") was tapped to brush up on those childhood piano lessons and man the keyboards. Meanwhile, other moms and dads in their inner-circle – some of whom had also dreamed of performing on stage – filled in as band mates and backup singers. Together they were "The Moody Trues." "There are times when you feel like your whole life comes together," Betsy says softly. "When my kids got on stage to introduce us, I realized this was one of those times. I'd always felt like I had two missions – one as a creator and one as a mother – but the idea of having it all felt more like a myth to me."
Yet that night, in front of a packed crowd of family and friends, Betsy True realized she had to be true to herself.
"That evening validated everything for me," she says. "It gave me permission to go on the journey, to go on the search. I realized that this is a piece of me that I can't deny. Still, I can't tell you I'm doing this without guilt," she adds. "As a mom, I'm the anchor of this family, and when the anchor changes it changes the whole family. Sometimes I feel like it's Anna's turn to discover herself – not my turn. But as my friend Amy always says, there's space for both of us.
"I'm still not completely comfortable with how to be a good mother, a good wife and an authentic artist," she continues, with tears welling up in her eyes. "I don't want to look back and regret. I don't want to look back and say I never tried it. I want to look back and say I really loved my life – and I want my girls to see that you really can live your dreams."
The sold-out show in Cranford was not only the beginning of Betsy's new journey, but a journey for hundreds of students at the North Star Academy Charter School of Newark. The money raised that evening was used to create the Betsy True "Performateria," a space that now lives in the school's cafeteria, complete with lights, a sound system and costumes – a platform, you might say, for the school's rising stars. And while Betsy doesn't see herself taking this particular show on the road, a return to Broadway isn't out of the question. In the meantime, she's begun taking songwriting and screenwriting classes and has returned to writing plays.
"I'm in Oz, in my ruby slippers, trying to figure out where home is," she says smiling. "I have no idea where this journey is going, I just know I need to create. I loved my 50th birthday, and I'll never forget it, because it gave me so many gifts. Reclaiming my artistic identity – and my womanhood – were just two of many."